Downloading PDF. Please wait... Issue 2117

Oliver Cromwell’s legacy

This article is over 15 years, 7 months old
The British establishment doesn’t often, even inadvertently, remind us of our revolutionary past
Issue 2117
The statue of Oliver Cromwell outside the Houses of Parliament is a testament to Britain’s revolutionary past
The statue of Oliver Cromwell outside the Houses of Parliament is a testament to Britain’s revolutionary past

The British establishment doesn’t often, even inadvertently, remind us of our revolutionary past. So every visitor to central London should be aware of a hidden treat that the area contains. Deep in the heart of modern government, half way down Whitehall, lies the Banqueting House.

In January 1649, the Banqueting House was the site where King Charles I stepped out of a first floor window onto a raised scaffold to face his executioner.

Today, just along from that window in a small recess in the wall, is a bust of Charles I. His disembodied head stares down at the descendents of the citizens who founded a republic after his death.

A short walk into Parliament Square brings you face to face with Charles’ nemesis – Oliver Cromwell. Standing before parliament, Cromwell’s is a wholly more impressive statue.

Cromwell is depicted in revolutionary pose. Attired in the cavalry uniform of his Ironsides, his right hand rests on his sword and his left holds the Bible.

As the revolutionaries of the 17th century used the Bible as their text for revolt, this is a great bronze testament to the unity of theory and practice.

Cromwell died 350 years ago. Among those who followed his coffin were perhaps the most impressive mourners ever assembled at the death of a British head of state – the poets John Milton, Andrew Marvell and John Dryden.

When Charles II restored the monarchy two years later, Cromwell’s body was disinterred, posthumously hung drawn and quartered, and its parts displayed at Tyburn.

Centuries later Cromwell was still exciting controversy. George V refused to have a battleship named “Cromwell”. As late as 1960 Wallingford council refused to name a street Cromwell Gardens because it had “more than enough benefactors… without entertaining a malefactor of his class”.

Yet for the great Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky, the appropriate praise was a comparison with Vladimir Lenin, who led the 1917 Russian Revolution. Trotsky described Lenin as “the 20th century proletarian Cromwell”.


Cromwell was the decisive figure of the English Revolution of the 1640s. He came from that part of society that was to be the engine of the revolution.

He was a distant descendent of Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII’s “hammer of the monks”. His family benefited from the sale of church lands at the dissolution of the monasteries between 1536 and 1540.

This development weakened the lords’ dependence on the monarch and created a new layer of landowners more likely to relate to commercial interests than to respond to old feudal loyalties.

Cromwell himself noted that he was “by birth a gentleman, living neither in any considerable height, nor yet in obscurity”. In the 1630s, he was, as historian John Morrill points out, “a yeoman, a working farmer. He had moved down from the gentry to the ‘middling sort’.”

This new “middling sort” were more than economically opposed to the old feudal restrictions and Charles I’s taxes on new wealth. They were also ideologically opposed to the semi-Catholic forms of church hierarchy and idolatry.

For them these undermined the Puritan reformation that had begun when Henry VIII broke with the Catholic church.

In the 17th century the church played the role that is played by the education system, the media and the PR machine of government today. Attendance at church was a legal requirement.

Puritanism stressed an individual relationship, based on conscience, between humans, the Bible and God.

Catholicism, in contrast, was the international form of reaction that resisted this interpretation, as did the “high church” forms of worship favoured by Charles. Here the key was a relationship with God based on obedience to state-appointed clerics.

In the 1630s Charles ruled without calling even the advisory meetings of parliament that had traditionally held the monarchy to mild account.

All the tensions over Charles’ economic and taxation policies, his hierarchical and persecutorary religious policies and his marriage to the Catholic Henrietta Maria came to a head at the end of the 1630s.

Cromwell’s finest hour was his role in the First Civil War that broke out in 1642. The first generation of parliamentary leaders felt that they were forced by the king’s intransigence to take up arms against him.

But they saw force of arms as a necessary evil designed only to force Charles to resume the throne on terms more favourable to them.

This constantly undermined their resolve to fight the war to a successful conclusion. They were politically set on compromise with the king.

Cromwell emerged as the leader of the “win the war” party, insistent that the political and military means must be adopted that could conclusively defeat the king. One exchange between the Earl of Manchester, the first leader of the parliamentary army, and Cromwell highlights the political gulf between these two views.

Manchester complained, “If we beat the king 99 times, yet he is still the king… but if he beat us but once we shall all be hanged.” Cromwell replied, “If this be so why did we take up arms at first? This is against fighting hereafter.”


On another occasion he insisted, “If the king be in the body of the enemy, I would as soon discharge my pistol upon him as upon any private man, and if your conscience will not let you do the like, I advise you not to enlist yourselves under me.”

As the Civil War polarised opinion, Cromwell’s determination triumphed. His regiment, the Ironsides of the Eastern Association, was the most effective force in the army.

It became the model for the whole army when it was reorganised, or “new modelled”, in 1644, following the failure of the parliamentary forces to make a major breakthrough.

Cromwell pushed out the old leaders by insisting that parliament pass the “self denying ordinance” banning MPs and lords from holding command in this New Model Army – with one exception, Cromwell himself.

But the real strength of both the Eastern Association and the New Model Army was that they mobilised the energy of the lower classes and did not simply rely on the gentry, the traditional ruling class of the counties.

When Cromwell was criticised for appointing a captain of horse who was not from the gentry he replied, “I had rather have a plain russet-coated captain that knows what he fights for and loves what he knows, than that which you call a gentleman and is nothing else.”

Cromwell’s policy, and the radical Puritan ideology that imparted discipline to these recruits from the “middling sort”, transformed the military situation. This force annihilated the Royalists at the battles of Marston Moor and Naseby in 1644 and 1645.

But once the war was won, Cromwell’s greatest moment was passed. He increasingly sought an accommodation with the king, which he had opposed in the early phase of the revolution.


Two things prevented such a compromise. The rank and file of the New Model Army had become massively politicised by the war, as had the artisans and traders of London.

Army regiments began to elect agitators who confronted the “grandees” of the army high command. They made common cause with the Levellers, a radical democratic party whose programme, the Agreement of the People, demanded a republic based on a wide (though not universal) suffrage.

The second factor was Charles I’s total inability to compromise. He escaped and restarted the Civil War but was conclusively defeated by Cromwell on the battlefields of the Second Civil War.

Cromwell’s role now underwent a fundamental change. He became the representative of those who wished to end the radical impulse of the revolution and bring it back within bounds acceptable to the new ruling elite.

He turned on the Levellers and the radicals in the army telling his supporters, “you have no other way of dealing with these men but to break them or they will break you”. And break them he did – by crushing a Leveller-inspired army mutiny at Burford in Oxfordshire.

Cromwell’s rule became more authoritarian. Although he refused the crown when it was offered to him, his assumption of the title Lord Protector made him too king-like for many.

Cromwell had swept away much of the remnants of feudalism and paved the way for the capitalist democracy, which has become universal, at least as a political model, in the 21st century.

But the “middling sort” of the English Revolution could only achieve this by destroying the old semi-feudal power above it and then suppressing the radical popular power that had been stirred up below it.

In the French Revolution that began in 1789 we see this same process. Robespierre and the Jacobins were the high tide of radicalism. But they were defeated and Napoleon’s empire marked the stabilisation of a new capitalist ruling class. Frederick Engels, Karl Marx’s great collaborator, saw that “Cromwell is Robespierre and Napoleon in a single person”.

Nevertheless, we should remember Cromwell and the Levellers. At the decisive moments of the Civil War, Cromwell “fought without holding anything back”, wrote Trotsky, adding that “in this sense the dead lion of the 17th century is immeasurably greater than many living dogs”.

It’s appropriate then that a lion lies at the foot of that statute of Cromwell outside parliament. Where the “living dogs” might be in this vicinity, I leave to your imagination.

Sign up for our daily email update ‘Breakfast in Red’

Related News

Latest News

Make a donation to Socialist Worker

Help fund the resistance